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for Books and Writers
by Bamber Gascoigne

This is an archive of a dead website. The original website was published by Petri Liukkonen under Creative Commons BY-ND-NC 1.0 Finland and reproduced here under those terms for non-commercial use. All pages are unmodified as they originally appeared; some links and images may no longer function. A .zip of the website is also available.

(Helen) Beatrix Potter (1866-1943)


English author and illustrator of picture-books for very young,  whose many characters include Peter Rabbit, Jeremy Fisher, Jemima Puddle-Duck, and Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle. Beatrix Potter's popularity has shown no sign of diminishing since she created her timeless children's books.

"Once upon a time there were four little Rabbits, and their names were - Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail, and Peter. They lived with their Mother in a sand-bank, underneath the root of a very big tree" (from The Tale of Peter Rabbit, 1902)

Beatrix Potter was born in 2 Bolton Gardens, South Kensington, London, the only daughter of Rupert Potter, a wealthy rentier, and Helen Potter, whose sister Elizabeth Leech had married Rupert's younger brother Walter. The property of the family came from the Lancashire cotton industry. Rupert's friends included the photographer A. F. Mackenzie and the Pre-Raphaelite painter Sir John Everett Millais, who frequently teased the shy Beatrix.

Potter spent a sheltered childhood with her brother Bertram, who was five years younger. Her mother, afraid of germs, did not allow her children to mix with other children than members of the family. Potter amused herself by painting, using specimens from the Natural History Museum or sketching the nature in the Lake District, where the family spent summer holidays. She also became a proficient photographer. Her pets included at various times, rabbits,  a green frog called Punch, lizards, water newts, a tortoise, salamanders, mice, several bats, birds, guinea pigs, and other animals.

Potter lived in Bolton Gardens with her parenst for nearly fifty years, before she moved north to settle in the Lake District. Her secluded London home  Potter later described as "my unloved birthplace". The daily rituals followed a schedule set by Helen. Rupert spent usually his afternoon at a club. During World War II, the house was destroyed in the air raids. Potter had more pleasant recollections of the home of her grandparents, Camfield Place near Hatfield in Hertfordshire. After her grandmother's death she wrote a short essay, 'Memories of Camfield Place', to an imaginary correspondent called Esther.

Potter never went to school, but was taught at home by a governess. She learned to read from Sir Walter Scott's novels and Maria Edgeworth's Tales. Her favorites included Aesop's Fables, fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen, Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin,  Charles Kingsley's fantasy The Water-Babies, and Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. For her tenth birthday she received from her father Beatrix Jemina Blackburn's Birds Drawn from Nature (1868) . "I kept it in the drawing room cupboard, only to be taken out after I had washed my grimy little hands ..." Potter recalled.

From the age of fifteen until she was past thirty, Potter recorded her everyday life in her own secret code-writing. "Thank goodness, my education was neglected," Potter later said in an article, but actually she was interested in science and spent much time in developing a theory of the germination of fungus spores. In 1881, she received an Art Student's Certificate from the Science and Art Departmrent of the Committee of Council on Education.

Potter began to draw and paint already young, but as a writer and artist she made her debut in the 1890s, when she send to a sick child illustrated animal stories, which found their way to the publisher (Frederick Warne & Company) and made her famous. In 1890 she published under the signature H. B. P. a small book of animal drawings, A Happy Pair, which was accompanied verses by the English songwriter and lawyer Fredric Weatherley (1848-1929) – he wrote the songs 'Danny Boy' and 'Roses in Picardy'.

In 1893 Potter wrote a letter to a young friend, Noël Moore, the five-year-old son of a former governess. The text was illustrated with drawings of animals and contained the first version of The Tale of Peter  Rabbit, the high-spirited bunny, who has an insatiable hunger for carrot and cabbage. Peter's father was baked into a pie by Mr. Gregor. Also some other charartes, such as Squirrel Nutkin, first appeared in Potter's letters. The little book was privately printed in 1901 in an edition of 250 copies, and then published by Frederick Warne & Co; the company had first rejected it. Potter and one of the publishers, Norman Warne, engaged in 1905, but he died of leukemia only a month later. Potter turned back to her books as the one creative impulse left to her.

"If it were not impertinent to lecture one's publisher  you are a great deal too much afraid of the public, for whom I have never cared one tuppenny button. I am sure that it is that attitude of mind which has enabled me to keep up the series. Most people, after one success, are so cringingly afraid of doing less well that they rub all the edge off their subsequent work." (from The Magic Years of Beatrix Potter by Margaret Lane, 1978)

With the royalties from her books, Potter bought Hill Top, a  seventeeth-century farm at Sawrey in the Lake District, paying nearly twice as much for the thirty-four-acre property as the previous owner. "My purchase seems to be regarded as a huge joke," she wrote to Harold Warne, her editor, but actually she made an investment in personal freedom and independence. The following years until 1913 were Potter's most productive. She published a number of children's books with watercolor illustrations, and oversaw the production and design. "I never quite understood the secret of Peter's perennial charm," Potter once admitted in a letter. By the time of her death, she had built up an estate of 4.000 acres. In her business dealings, Potter was also rigorous. Her work created an entire industry around them: pottery, tea-towels, soft toys, cartoon films. 

Potter's  illustrations usually showed animal characters wearing human clothes, but otherwise she treated her characters, human and animal, without too much sentimentality. Betsy, the fisherman's wife from The Tale of Little Pig Robinson (1930), has rheumatics, and Peter Rabbit is nearly caught by Mr. McGregor, who chases the frightened rabbit determinedly. It was important for her to write the stories both simple and direct. When an attempt to issue The Tale of the Pie and the Patty Pan (1905) and The Roly-Poly Pudding  (1908) in a larger format did not gain success, the original small format of the book was found best and suitable for small hands.

LITTLE Benjamin said,
"It spoils people's clothes
to squeeze under a gate;
the proper way to get in,
is to climb down a pear tree."

(from 'The Tale of Benjamin Bunny')

At the age of 47 Potter married the solicitor William Heelis and gradually stopped writing. He had acted for her in the purchase of Castle Farm; the purchase had been made through W. Heelis and Sons, an old-established family business. On her father's death, she received a substantial inheritance and in 1923 she bought a sheep farm, where she spent her last 30 years raising Herdwick sheep. In the Lake District, she was better known as Mrs. William Heelis.

Potter's marriage was happy. She continued the life she loved best – as a conservationist, landowner, solicitor's wife, and farmer. A few years before Potter died, she wrote in a letter to a friend, that "I am exceedingly sorry for my husband. You may have noticed I am the stronger half of the pair..." Potter told her husband little about her life before her marriage.  Her literary work deteriorated with her eyesight after 1918, diminishing gradually by 1930s. Tale of Little Pig Robinson was the only story of note to appear in her declining years. The Fairy Caravan (1929), written for American publication only, did not appear in England until 1952.

Potter died in Sawrey, Lancashire on December 22, 1943. She was cremated in Blackpool and her ashes were scattered somewhere on the fells above Near Sawrey. Potter's home in the Lake District is open to the public. She left several thousand acres of land, including Hill Top Farm, the setting of several of her books, to the National Trust. Her journal, which she kept from the age of fifteen and which was written in minuscule handwriting and elaborated code, was deciphered by Leslie Linder and published in 1964. From 1992 to 1995 an animated series based on Potter's characters was broadcasted every Christmas and Easter around the world.

For further reading: The Tale of Beatrix Potter by Margaret Lane (1946); Beatrix Potter by Marcus Crouch (1960); The Magic Years of Beatrix Potter by Margaret Lane (1978); Cousin Beatie by Ulla Hyde Parker (1981); Beatrix Potter: Artist, Storyteller and Countrywoman by Judy Taylor (1986); Beatrix Potter by Ruth MacDonaldson (1986); Beatrix Potter's Derwentwater by Wynne Bartlett and Joyce Irene Whalley (1988); Beatrix Potter: The Story of the Creator of Peter Rabbit by Elizabeth Buchan, Beatrix Potter (1998); Beatrix Potter to Harry Potter: Portraits of Children's Writers by Julia Eccleshare (2002); Beatrix Potter: Writing in Code by M. Daphne Kutzer, Jack Zipes (2002); Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature by Linda Lear (2008); At Home with Beatrix Potter: The Creator of Peter Rabbit by Susan Denyer (2009)  - Note: the ballet film Tales of Beatrix Potter (1971), directed by Reginald Mills, is one of the most succesfull films of its kind. Bryan Talbot's graphic novel The Tale of One Bad Rat (1995) used Potter's settings. Talking animals: see Kenneth Grahame, Rudyard Kipling. See also: Richard Scarry, who admired the books of Potter

Selected works:

  • A Happy Pair, 1890 (with F. Weatherly)
  • The Tale of Peter Rabbit, 1900
    - Petteri Kaniini (suom. Riitta Björklund, 1967) / Petteri Kaniinin tarina (suomentanut Ritva Toivola, 2003)
  • The Tailor of Gloucester, 1903
    - Tarina räätälistä (suom. Raija Mattila, 1979)
  • The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin, 1903
    - Nokkela ja Vikkelä (suom. Eeva-Liisa Manner, 1967)
  • The Tale of Two Bad Mice, 1904
    - Kaksi tuhmaa hiirtä (suom. Raija Mattila, 1979)
  • The Tale of Benjamin Bunny, 1904
    - Penna Pupu (suom. Raija Mattila, 1979)
  • The Tale of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle, 1905
    - Rouva Siiri Sipinen (suom. Eeva-Liisa Manner, 1967)
  • The Tale of the Pie and the Patty-Pan, 1905
  • The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher, 1906
    - Jeremias Rimppakinttu (suom. Raija Mattila, 1980)
  • The Story of A Fierce Bad Rabbit, 1906
  • The Story of Miss Moppet, 1906
  • The Tale of Tom Kitten, 1907
    - Tommin roimahousut (suom. Raija Mattila, 1980)
  • The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck, 1908
    - Rosina Ankkanen maailmalla (suom. Raija Mattila, 1980)
  • The Tale of Samuel Whiskers or, The Roly-Poly Pudding, 1908
  • The Tale of Ginger and Pickles, 1909
  • The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies, 1909
    - Pikku salaattivarkaat (suom. Raija Mattila, 1980)
  • The Tale of Ginger and Pickles, 1909
  • The Tale of Mrs. Tittlemouse, 1910
    - Hanna-hiiren kuokkavieraat (suom. Raija Mattila, 1980)
  • TThe Tale of Timmy Tiptoes, 1911
    - Hemmo Harmaatassu (suom. Raija Mattila, 1980)
  • Peter Rabbit's Painting Book, 1911
  • The Tale of Mr. Tod, 1912
  • The Tale of Pigling Bland, 1913
  • Johnny Townmouse, 1914
  • Tom Kitten's Painting Book, 1917
  • Appley Dapply's Nursery Rhymes, 1917
  • The Tale of Johnny Town-Mouse, 1918
    - Joonas Kaupunkihiiri (suom. Raija Mattila, 1980)
  • Cecily Parsley's Nursery Rhymes, 1922
  • Jemima Puddle-Duck's Painting Book, 1925
  • Peter Rabbit's Almanac for 1929, 1929
  • The Fairy Caravan, 1929
  •  The Tale of Little Pig Robinson, 1930
  • Sister Anne, 1932 (illustrated by Katharine Sturges)
  • Wag-by-Wall, 1944 (decorations by J. J. Lankes)
  • The Tale of the Faithful Dove, 1955 (illustrated by Marie Angel)
  • The Art of Beatrix Potter: With an Appreciation by Anne Carroll Moore, 1955
  • The Journal of Beatrix Potter, 1881 - 1897, 1966 (edited by L. Linder, rev. 1989)
  • Letters to Children from Beatrix Potter, 1967 (collected and introducred by Judy Taylor)
  • The Sly Old Cat, 1971 (written in 1906)
  • A History of the Writings of Beatrix Potter, Including Unpublished Work, 1971 (edited by L. Linder)
  • The Tale of Tuppenny, 1973
  • Beatrix Potter's Birthday Book, 1974 (compiled By Enid Linder)
  • Dear Ivy,Dear June: Letters from Beatrix Potter, 1977 (published by Toronto Public Library)
  • Beatrix Potter's Americans: Selected Letters, 1982 (edited by Jane Crowell Morse)
  • Yours Affectionately, Peter Rabbit: Miniature Letters, 1983
  • Beatrix Potter's Nursery Rhyme Book, 1984
  • Beatrix Potter's Letters, 1989 (edited by J. Taylor)

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